Slate Countertops Buyer's Guide

Slate countertops are stylish with a look and feel uniquely different from other countertop materials. But slate also has unique problems.

Not all slate is the same. Care and durability vary a lot. Slate can be super… or a maintenance nightmare. 

Here you’ll learn the unvarnished truth, pros & cons, colors, cost, cleaning, care, repair, and insider tips on how to buy the best slate countertop for years of easy enjoyment.

Slate countertops with pattern - text overlay - Slate countertops buyer’s guide, pros, cons, cost, colors, cleaning

Quick Navigation

  1. Pros & Cons of Slate Countertops
  2. What is Slate? 
  3. Quality of Slate Slabs & Tile
  4. Slate Countertop Colors
  5. Slate Countertops Costs
  6. Finishes & Textures
  7. Care & Cleaning
  8. Is Sealing Slate Necessary?
  9. Where to Buy Slate Countertops
  10. How to Buy the Best Slate

Pros & Cons of Slate Countertops

When debating which type of countertop best fits your home, it is imperative to understand the pros and cons of each choice.

No countertop material is perfect, so it’s always a matter of weighing the good against the bad.

Slate countertops can be long-lasting and easy to maintain IF you buy the right slate slab.

This section highlights the main points to consider. Then, we’ll dig into the details below.  

What are the Pros of a Slate Countertop?

  • Easy to clean
  • Does not require sealing (but can vary slab to slab)
  • Highly stain resistant (but can vary slab to slab)
  • Anti-bacterial - will not grow mold or mildew
  • Heat resistant - won’t scorch from hot pans
  • Hard and durable (when the right slab is purchased)
  • Seams are less visible
  • A slate sink can be fabricated to match the countertops
  • Versatile - looks great in a rustic or classic kitchen design

What are the Cons of a Slate Countertop?

  • May have brittle corners and edges that chip and crack
  • Quality of slate slabs can vary dramatically (from hard & durable to brittle & flaky)
  • Cracks under excess weight
  • Scratches can occur
  • Cannot be polished to a glossy shine
  • Limited color options (compared to other countertop materials)
  • Slate slabs are smaller and will require more seams

What is Slate?

Slate is not a common choice for kitchen countertops. However, It is a highly versatile material with a long history of use for roofing, flooring, gravestones, stepping stones, billiards tables, and more. The phrases “blank slate” and “clean slate” come from it’s very common use as a chalkboard.

Slate is a metamorphic rock that is formed from sedimentary clay and volcanic ash. So, it’s a natural stone like granite or marble. It’s most similar to soapstone.

Slate forms in layers or planes which impart its interesting cleft texture, but is also responsible for some of slate’s maintenance issues.  

Slate comes from Spain and Brazil primarily, but the United Kingdom, China, Africa and United States also supply slate.

In the US, slate mainly comes from Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York.

Vermont slate is typically a hard, durable, high-quality slate excellent for kitchen countertops.

Quality of Slate Countertop Slabs & Tile

What is that saying… “like a box of chocolates… never know what you’ll get.” This is true of slate.

Slate is always a mix of minerals. The particular combo of ingredients can vary widely. Thus, the physical and performance characteristics can differ dramatically from slab to slab, color to color. To a degree this is also true of granite and marble, but the range is much more extreme with slate countertops.

Some slate slabs are extremely durable. High-grade slate slabs are hard, dense and non-absorbent, won’t stain, don’t need sealing, won’t chip or scratch easily, and won’t etch from acidic foods.

These high-quality slate countertops will always be the darker colors, but not all dark colors will possess these desired qualities, so you must test and choose well.

Some slate slabs are weak and fragile. Low-quality slabs can be very porous, next to impossible to seal, and will stain quickly.  This type will easily crumble, flake, chip, scratch, and etch (chalky dull spots) from acidic foods and most cleaning products.

Slate Countertops Colors

Most people think of slate as gloomy gray in color. However, the gray and black slates look stellar in a classic black & white kitchen design.

slate countertops in modern black and white kitchen designImage Source: Camello

Slate is also found in green, blue, red, purple, brown, gold and mixed colors depending on the mineral content. The most vibrant colors typically arrive from Africa, but Vermont slate colors feature various shades of red, purple, gray, black and the popular and very pretty green slate.  

green slate countertops, rustic kitchen design, natural wood cabinets, floors, beamsImage Source: RMG Stone

A change in color (called “fading” or “weathering”) can occur with some slates when exposed to the atmosphere (i.e. after quarried and cut into slabs or tiles). This may be an interesting unique benefit or a drawback depending on your tastes.

If you don’t want a color change, then be sure to choose an “unfading” variety.

If it’s the vibrant colors you’re going for, choose wisely. The colorful slates tend to have the most variance in quality and durability. You want to make double-sure you are buying a hard and durable slate slab that doesn’t easily chip, flake, stain, or etch.

And it isn’t always a flat solid color. Slate countertop colors will often have pattern elements such as lines, striations, marbling, or mottled colors.

slate countertops with unique brushed pattern on kitchen islandImage Source: Camara Slate

Slate Countertops Costs

Slate countertop cost will vary depending on a few variables:

  • Where it comes from
  • Color (gray slate and blue slate are less expensive)
  • Grade or quality
  • Texture or type of finish (cleft, cascade, honed)
  • Slab vs. tile

You may read elsewhere that slate is usually cheaper than other types of countertops like granite, concrete, or quartz countertops. That’s true only if using slate tile. Of course, a tile countertop will always be cheaper, but more maintenance-intensive due to all the grout lines and it won’t have the upscale look of a solid slab countertop.

  • A slate tile countertop will cost $45 - $70 per square foot.
  • A slate slab countertop will cost $65 - $115 per sq. ft.

As with any countertop installation, things like the number of cutouts (sinks, faucets, cooktop) and the complexity of the countertop configuration (seams, angles, corners) will also influence the total cost.

Finishes & Textures for Slate Countertops 

You have 3 finish types (surface texture) for slate countertops. The type chosen can have a significant impact on the overall cost, as well as, performance, durability, maintenance and repair options.

Natural Cleft Finish

This finish is unique to slate. Since slate forms in layers within the earth this cleft surface naturally occurs when slate is cut. In other words, it is not man-made like most natural stone countertop finishes where the stone is ground smooth, or hammered, or brushed to create a certain effect or texture.

The cleft texture is the default finish of slate countertops unless otherwise treated to achieve a different finish.

Although, it is interesting to note that slate can also be cut in a special way along the plane lines to yield a flat surface which is the method used to produce thin sheets for tiles, chalkboards, and pool tables.

The cleft finish provides a rough, earthy texture that works perfectly in a rustic kitchen design combined with naturally-finished wood floors, cabinets, walls or beams.

It is the least expensive, but most troublesome maintenance-wise of all finish options.

On the plus side, the rough texture will better hide scratches and smudges, but overall it can be a pain....

  • The rough ridges may collect dust, grime, and debris making cleaning difficult.
  • The texture may wear down, chip, or flake in heavily used areas.
  • Repairs to scratches or chips will always be visible since it is impossible to restore the finish to its original cleft texture. Any repair will flatten or smooth the surface.

Cascade Finish

Middle road between a cleft and honed finish in both cost and the degree of texture.

It’s a nearly flat finish but with a slight uniform ripple effect that looks like a gentle breeze flowing over calm water. Will hide scratches and smudges better than a honed finish, yet about as easy to clean and maintain as a honed finish.

Still, if a repair is needed, the result will be visible since the texture and pattern of the finish cannot be restored to its original state.  

Honed Finish

The surface is silky smooth, completely flat and will resemble soapstone or honed black granite. It will may have a soft luster but slate cannot be polished to a full glossy shine like granite.

A honed finish is a fantastic choice for a sleek and minimalist look or a classic black and white kitchen design. And slate countertops always look good paired with wood.

green slate countertops with integrated slate sink, slate tile backsplash and floor tileImage Source: RMG Stone - honed slate countertops with cleft finish backsplash & floor tile.

However, because it lacks texture, scratches, dust, and smudges from fingerprints and other oils are easily seen. This is true of any dark or black honed natural stone.

Applying a color-enhancing sealer can mitigate this problem by making fingerprints and smudges much less visible and, therefore, less likely to drive you nuts wiping them off constantly. It will darken or deepen the color and make the slate countertop look wet.

The upside is that a honed finish can be restored to its original condition and scratch repairs will be essentially invisible.

Of course, this is the most expensive finish type.

Slate Countertop Care & Cleaning

The trick here is to do your homework and purchase only high-grade slate slabs that are hard, durable, low-porosity, and non-reactive to acids.

A high-quality slab is a must.

Do this and you’ll enjoy a low-maintenance kitchen countertop.

A poor-quality slate simply will not stand up to the demands of a kitchen countertop. It can be very porous, reactive to acids, and brittle. So it will stain, etch, scratch, chip, and crack easily.

Cracks and chips can still occur, unfortunately, even with a premium-quality slab if a heavy object is dropped onto it, especially near the edges.

Slate is more vulnerable to such damage due to its formation in layers or planes which can cleave off. Since the edges are particularly at risk, they are usually rounded on a slate countertop.

A round edge style is not the most popular look, but it is the best choice to avoid damage.

Chips can be filled and a crack can be repaired to maintain the integrity of the slab but these will always be visible to some degree. The only other option is to replace the countertop.

Heat and hot pans are not a problem for slate countertops. However, this is not recommended since slate can scratch somewhat easily. So, always use trivets and cutting boards.

Scratches can be sanded or buffed out with steel wool or even a cloth, but this may cause a change in the surface finish or texture such that it no longer matches the original finish texture. This is especially true for a cleft finish, but also a cascade finish. 

How do you clean slate countertops?

Daily cleaning is uncomplicated. Use hot water and a sponge to wipe up spills and crumbs. Use a quality natural stone cleaner for a thorough cleaning of the entire surface at the end of the day just like you would with granite, marble, quartz, or soapstone countertops.

A quality slate countertop will not readily react with acids or etch, however, repeated exposure of acids could cause some dullness over time. Most common household cleaners are harsh. Best to use a pH neutral cleaner made for natural stone.

Avoid using soap as a regular cleaner. Soap won’t harm slate but it will build up a film no matter how much you rinse the surface. This film will dull the surface and attract other dirt and grime. It can be removed (along with hard water deposits) using this Soap Film & Hard Water cleaner.

Of course, you’ll use soap around the sink, but best to just not use it as your regular cleaner over the entire surface.

Again, note that a honed (smooth matte) finish will show dust, smudges, and fingerprints more readily than a cascade or cleft finish. However, a honed finish can be repaired or refinished back to its original smooth texture. This cannot be done with a cleft or cascade finish.

Is Sealing Slate Countertops Necessary?

Sealing slate is typically not necessary BUT you need to water test the porosity to know for sure if your slate counters need a sealer or not.

Quality slate countertops will be very dense with low absorbency and will not stain easily. Liquids would have to remain on the surface a long time to stain. In this case, sealing is not required.

However, some slate is more absorbent and can stain quickly. Try to avoid installing this type of low-grade slate, but it you have it and testing shows it needs it, then apply a long-lasting stone sealer.

Where to Buy Slate Countertops?

Slate tile can be purchased at nearly every big box store, tile store, or stone warehouse.

Slate countertop slabs are a different story.  Slate slabs can be purchased at some local stone yards and even some big box stores, but it is more of a specialty surface so not every stone warehouse will carry slate slabs or only in limited quantity and color options.  

Stone warehouses on the east coast tend to carry a much larger and varied supply of slate than in other parts of the country. If your local stone yard does not have slate slabs, see if you can have it ordered from a dedicated slate supplier.

How to buy the best Slate Countertops

Always perform the lemon juice acid and stain test to ensure the slate is not reactive to acids and is a dense, low-porosity slab that won’t stain and likely won’t need sealing.

Test for hardness and brittleness by tapping on the slab edges to see how easily it chips, cracks, or flakes. This can occur even with a quality slab, but it should not happen with light impact.

Buy slate countertops from a region with excellent quality slate… like Vermont.

Make sure your fabricator is experienced working with slate and installing slate countertops.

To Summarize

  • Slate countertops provide a pleasing aesthetic to kitchen designs with unique textures and shifting coloration that is less bold than marble or granite countertops.
  • Colors include black, gray, green, red, blue, brown, purple, gold.
  • Cost is similar to granite ranging from $65 - $115 sq. ft.
  • Slate counters can be durable and low-maintenance, if you buy a top-quality slab.
  • Test slabs and buy only high-grade slabs as quality can vary dramatically.

Quality slate countertops…

  • Stand up well to the heat and hot pans.
  • Don’t need sealing, won’t stain, and resist growth of bacteria and mold.
  • Are not reactive to acids and will not etch.
  • However, can still scratch, chip, and crack particularly the edges.
  • Rounded corners and edges are recommended.
  • Clean with hot water and a quality stone cleaner.

Slate countertops are not a common choice for kitchen countertops with a limited color palette and overall are not quite as durable as granite or quartz, but can still be an excellent surface if you choose carefully and buy right.

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